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Black Theatre Matters


A moment from Black Nativity by Langston Hughes at Karamu House.

Of the many businesses hit hard by the global pandemic, theatres are perhaps disproportionately affected. After all, It’s difficult to do live theatre without being together in person. In search of a creative solution to help make sure they stay in business, one theatre, America’s oldest producing Black theatre the historic Karamu House, found a way for their community to support them and publicly show that support at the same time through a t-shirt fundraiser.

Founded in 1915 in Cleveland, Ohio, Karamu House began as a settlement house—a gathering place—for people of all races, religions, and economic backgrounds working in the arts. Members of their community who went on to be influential in the Harlem Renaissance did work there including Langston Hughes, who wrote and premiered his plays at Karamu House in the 1930s. Hughes is just one of many who have contributed to the theatre over its 105-year run. Successful authors, actors, vocal coaches, and more (including Zora Neale Hurston and Robert Guillaume) have worked there and gone on to create or contribute to bestselling books, Broadway shows, and television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Everybody Hates Chris, and American Idol.

The exterior of the historic Karamu House.

“Karamu House is continually cited as one of Cleveland’s top four treasures—and featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places,” says Ann Barnett, Karamu House’s Director of Communications & Institutional Advancement. “Today, Karamu’s mission is to produce professional theatre, provide arts education, and present programs for all people while honoring the African American experience.” 

Arts education at Karamu House.

Historically, nonprofits depend on a healthy and engaged community, and theatres are based around being together in person, so Karamu House was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. “As a non-profit organization, Karamu House depends on the support of its donors and patrons to continue its rich legacy of providing unique, and culturally and socially responsive programming,” Ann says. “When Karamu was forced to close its doors to the public in mid-March, it was also forced to cancel its two remaining mainstage productions (one-third of the 2019-20 theatre season). Additionally, Karamu was forced to cancel all remaining arts education classes for the spring semester, all community programming, and its annual benefit event (scheduled for mid-July), totaling nearly 20 events and programs.” They lost more than $650,000 in gross revenue across lost ticket and gift shop sales, sponsorships, and more. They had to furlough staff members, reduce the salaries for their senior leadership, and cancel contracts for more than 50 of their freelance workers.

The poster for Karamu House’s production of Aida.

Their staff mounted a t-shirt fundraiser through the Custom Ink Fundraising platform. Inspired by Black Lives Matter, they created a design in-house that supports the movement and specifically celebrates Black theatre at the same time.

 

“This fundraiser was a great way for us to raise funds in a creative way, allowing patrons and new fans of Karamu House to support the organization in a different way. Also, in this season, while we remain outside of our building, it was a way for us to fulfill fundraising merchandise without the upfront expense or need to have team members in our building to sort and ship,” says Ann. “This fundraiser has allowed Karamu a unique way to raise dollars, while also lifting up the importance of Black theatre (and its artists and theatre professionals) and allowing hundreds of individuals from across the country to show their support.”

In another effort to keep the theatre alive, they took their work online and mounted their first virtual production, a show called Freedom on Juneteenth on June 19, 2020, which reached more than 50,000 households. Their follow-up performance Freedom After Juneteenth premiered August 20, 2020, and is available to view on their website.

You can see their fundraiser here.

 

 


Miellyn is the Copy Manager at Custom Ink. Her work has spanned marketing for television networks like TLC and Travel, educational content for Smithsonian and National Geographic, marketing and story for indie video games, essays for publishers including Random House, The Telegraph, and Smart Pop Books, and stories for press outlets like VICE and VH1.

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